When I Was Young . . .

In my previous post I wrote about Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s visit to my middle school earlier this month. In this post, I’m sharing another lesson I taught last week that was inspired by her.

During the writer’s workshop Bartoletti conducted with some of our students, she read the children’s book When I Was Young in the Mountains written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Diane Goode. On Friday I read the story to my students as an introduction to our poetry unit. The book is technically not a poem, but the style is poetic because of the imagery and the repetition of the phrase “When I was young.”

First, of course, I read the book on my own. I knew that I wanted my students to pay attention to author’s craft, particularly how she creates imagery, but I was not sure how I wanted to reach that aim. Someone once wrote (I wish I could remember where I read this.) that the 40 minute period is the death of creativity. I agree. I find that 40 minutes is just not enough time to teach anything in depth, but in the end, I achieved my goal (I think).

  1. First, I read the story aloud to the students. They all grabbed carpet squares and sat around me while I read to the elementary school style. I asked them just to listen and visualize the story as I read. The story is chocked full of imagery, even on the first page: “Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
  2. Then I read the story to the students a second time. This time I asked them to record, in their writer’s notebooks, three words from each page that helped them create a mental image.
  3. After the second reading, the students worked with their seat partners to discuss their lists. I asked them to draw an x and a y axis on a page in their writer’s notebooks to create four quadrants. Each of the quadrants was labeled with a part of speech: adverbs, nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.
  4. The students then shared their lists with each other. Together they chose two or three words from each page that they thought were the most powerful. They then identified the part of speech of the word and placed it in the correct quadrant.
  5. After they had worked on this step for about ten minutes, we discussed our discoveries as a group. Of course, ten minutes is not enough time to analyze their entire lists, but they had compiled enough information to notice a pattern.
  6. All but a few groups realized after organizing Rylant’s words that the nouns and the action verbs were the words that were most effective in creating imagery, not the adjectives and adverbs, as they had suspected before doing this exercise. For nascent writers, this is a powerful realization, and it reinforces the idea that word choice is paramount in engaging your reader.
  7. I ended the lesson by asking the students to complete the following sentence: When I was young _____. As often happens, they surprised me with their answers. Some of the best ones included:
    • When I was young in America.
    • When I was young, I was free.
    • When I was young, I explored.
    • When I was young, I wore a uniform.

I love that their statements created a bit of mystery about their personal stories. On Monday, we will continue this exercise and see where it leads. I am excited to read their first poems of the year!

For those of you who were wondering: The feature image is a picture of my brother and me in our backyard in front of our swing set. I don’t remember how old I was, so take your best guess. ūüėä

Here is my version of “When I was young . . . ” that I will share with my students on Monday.

When I Was Young

When I was young

I longed to be older.

When I was young

The sky

envied my imagination,

its vastness

its colors,

and its unpredictability

When I was young

My mother could fix anything,

and my father was the best looking man I knew.

When I was young

My grandmother

baked lemon meringue pie on Saturdays,

and I thought it would be so forever.

When I was young

I knew grass

and pond

and swamp

and snow drifts

as tall as the trees.

When I was young

I had everything

but wanted everything else.

When I was young

I dreamt of you

but never believed you existed.

When I was young

I had a dog that I loved.

When I was young

I ran because it was fun.

When I was young

I soared high

and fell hard.

When I was young

I didn‚Äôt fail–

I explored.

You Catch More Bees with Honey . . .

This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.

So this post is about breaking old habits.

1. Wrangling with Writing

Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.

The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.

I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.

How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.

In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.

i-dont-know-what-to-write-about

2. The Grammar Gauntlet

Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.

The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.

3. The Long Lecture

One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.

Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.

4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results

The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.

  • I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
  • I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
  • I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
  • I am pushing past my own frustrations.
  • Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.

 

 

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 3 of 3)

Even though this is the last installment of this series of posts, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about poetry because I absolutely love teaching it. Nothing creates a stronger fire in me than sharing my appreciation for this art form with kids.

In this post I will share a three activities that I experimented with this week. Some of them worked better than others, but all of them ask students to think about the world in a different way, experiment, and test their own limitations.

4. Imitating Structure and Form

In the past two weeks (since I wrote my last post) I asked students to imitate two different poems:¬†And the Ghosts by Graham Foust and¬†Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.¬†

And The Ghosts

I ran across Foust’s poem searching for poems to share with my 8th grade students. It’s unique because it is a one-line poem with a title. I chose it because no matter¬†the writing assignment–essay, story, or poem–they always ask the question “How long does it have to be?” Instead of giving the students a line minimum for each poem, this year I provided the following answer:

An poet is the paren of his work, so the poem is his child. Every parent does what is best for the child. (2)

  1. Take time to notice. 

    And the Ghosts

    they own everything

    Before asking the students to interpret the poem, I asked them what they noticed. Probably the most important observation they made was that the poem would not have much meaning without the title. I’ve been trying to reinforce the idea all year that the title of a work–a news article, a book, a poem, a short story, a painting–is the holy grail. It is the key to understanding the purpose and theme of a piece. This poem provides students with ann example of that truth.

  2. Look for meaning.

    ¬†After giving students time to observe the structure of the poem, I asked them to look for meaning. What does the poem mean when he states that the ghosts own everything? Some said that the ghosts symbolize the past, and your past controls controls you–it makes you who you are today. Some said that the ghosts were memories, and your memories are an integral part of your consciousness. Remember to give students time to contemplate the difficult questions. Don’t expect them to raise their hands immediately. Sometimes I find myself waiting a minute or more for students to raise their hands. When teachers give students time to think, they know the instructor is serious about the question and expects them to come up with the answer. Too often teachers give the students answers to the difficult questions if students don’t answer right away.

  3. Imitate. 

I gave students two choices. They could either:

Create a one-line poem with a title

OR

Use Foust’s poem as the start of their own.

Paul Revere’s Ride

I am not a huge fan of Paul Revere’s Ride¬†because of its historical inaccuracies, and–I’ll be honest–I don’t really understand its purpose. The poem, however, is a part of our school’s curriculum, and I am expected to teach it when the students are studying the Revolutionary War in social studies. I needed to get excited about teaching this poem to mask my indifference from my students, so I decided to create a parody. I had the students do the same. They could choose any subject matter for the poem, but I asked them to model the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and meter (four beats per line, a mix of iambs and anapests) of the poem’s first stanza:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five:

Hardly a man is now alive,

Who remembers that famous day and year.

I’ve only completed two stanzas of my parody, but it was enough to use as a model for my students. I did not require them to write a full-length poem–I just wanted them to experiment with Longfellow’s form and style. Some of them decided that they wanted to turn their drafts into poems for their portfolios that they will submit on Wednesday. Here is the example I wrote for my students:

The Ballad of a Samson’s Ear

Listen, my cats, and you shall hear

Of the awful tale of a bitten ear,

One one Fall morning when dawn was nigh

I saw Loopy Lester, sleek and sly

Turn the corner like a buccaneer.

He said to me, “This is my domain!

From trespassing here you shall abstain!

Or I’ll claw your eyes and bite your tail,

And chase you to the nether vale,

Where snakes abound to slither and maim.”

After this lesson, I received the best compliment a teacher can get from a student: “Miss Raub, I never liked poetry before, but I think you are converting me.” Boom! That’s my reason for showing up every day.

5. Creative Prompts

Good questions will ask students to think about the world or themselves a little differently. With middle schoolers, I like to ask them questions that invite students to look inward. Here are my two favorites that I used this year:

  1. If you had the money and the influence to buy a digital screen in Times Square, what message would you share with the world?
  2. What are the five things that you know to be true? (Another nod to Sarah Kay–In her TED Talk,¬†If I Should Have A Daughter, she mentions how she uses this prompt with her students. Her version asks students to write ten truths.)

For each of these questions, I, of course, created my own answers that I shared with the students. Sometimes I share before the students create their own; sometimes I share after. When I share depends on the class. If I find that the students are struggling with the concept, I may share my example in the beginning of the lesson. If students seem comfortable or ready to create without a model, I let them. In general, I find that students are much more creative if I let them experiment before sharing my models.

My digital screen: Listening > Speaking

Ten Things I Know To Be True:

  1. I am alive
  2. The world is small and colossal at the same time.
  3. I love my husband.
  4. Kids are fun.
  5. Birds are fascinating creatures.
  6. A leisurely breakfast is happiness.
  7. I can’t imagine a world without music or books.
  8. I love new learning.
  9. I know nearly nothing.
  10. I love my pets.

If you have ways that you’ve inspired students of any age to write and read more poetry, please let me know! I don’t know yet what the topic of my next blog post will be, but I do know that the end of the school year is drawing near. I hope you all finish the year robustly and vigorously. Stay enthusiastic to the very end–your students deserve it.

 

A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short. ¬†Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time.¬†I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.

Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller, and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset

In¬†The Story of My Life, Helen Keller¬†recounts her struggles with deafness and blindness. Almost every American student learns Helen Keller’s story at some point in middle school or high school. I was one of those students. I don’t, however, remember exactly when I was taught her story or even if I ever read it. Helen Keller’s story is so much a fabric of our culture that I feel like I have always known about her. Because I thought I knew everything I needed to know about Helen Keller, I was not excited to begin the unit about her with my students.¬†My decision to teach the autobiography instead of the play was based on the Common Core standards and their focus on non-fiction. I asked myself, “How can the autobiography be as poignant as the play?”

Well, until I began reading Keller’s story and sharing it with my students, I realized that I knew almost nothing about her.

As often happens when I teach an unfamiliar piece to my students, I was pleasantly surprised with their response, which, in turn, increased my enthusiasm about the unit. If you’ve never read Keller’s autobiography, I suggest you do. In it, Keller recounts her struggles in intimate and precise detail. I asked the students to record Wow! moments, questions, and connections they made while reading chapter 6. One of the most popular wow moments that the students noted was “She knows more words than I do! How did she learn them being deaf AND blind?” Helen Keller articulately explains her learning process and her relationship to Annie Sullivan, but even so, don’t we all wonder at her accomplishments? If you don’t, you need to reread parts of her autobiography. If you don’t have the time to peruse the entire book, peruse a few chapters. I recommend chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, 13, 20 and 22. Ask yourself how Helen Keller became a world famous speaker, an author of twelve books, a progressive and relentless advocate for people with disabilities, a speaker of five languages, and a world traveler?

After much thought, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Helen had a patient, persistent, and loving teacher who, as Annie herself said, taught Helen like a seeing child.

In other words, Annie believed in Helen.

Annie Sullivan had a growth mindset.

At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions . . . but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, (3)

I hesitate to use the phrase “growth mindset” because educators have heard so much about it lately, but it clearly explains what made Annie Sullivan such an inspiring teacher. I’m also reticent to use the phrase because ¬†I think some educational leaders misinterpret the it. (I could write an entire blog post about that topic, but I’ll save it for another time.) If you are unfamiliar with growth mindset, you can watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve.” Even if you are familiar with the concept, the video is worth watching.

One of the most powerful messages that Helen’s story conveys to teachers one hundred years later is the¬†power of a growth mindset. Annie never allowed herself to believe that Helen was not capable of learning. And guess what–Helen learned more in her lifetime than many of us could learn in two if you think about where she started, trapped in her own mind, her own darkness, with the inability to communicate how she felt or what she thought to herself or with the outside world. And please let me note that Helen did not learn because Annie told Helen that she was great all the time. Helen learned and grew because Annie believed Helen could be better, and as a result, she made Helen aware of her mistakes.

In chapter 6 of her story, Helen Keller writes, “At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information.” I asked my students to analyze this quotation and think about what it reveals¬†about Helen Keller’s character. When I reviewed the students’ responses, one stuck with me: “Why did she ask few questions in the beginning?” This¬†¬†question honed my focus for a brief moment and provided me with an insight:¬†Aren’t many of our students like Helen? Like Helen, they¬†do not have the background knowledge or the words they need to discern what questions they should ask. It’s our job as teachers to build that background knowledge and those vocabulary skills so that our students become questioners. After all, aren’t the best learners curious? They want to know more about a subject, like Helen, whose “field of inquiry broadened” when she was finally given the words she needed.

Sarah Tantillo (who you can also find on WordPress) writes in¬†The Literacy Cookbook that “comprehension¬†in general, not just reading comprehension . . . applies to listening, seeing, smelling, touching–everything you do in order to try to understand.” If Helen Keller could develop an understanding of her world through Annie’s teachings with only three senses,¬†then even the most reluctant learners can learn in our classrooms. They may have other disabilities that are not sensory-related, but they are capable of developing an understanding and curiosity about the world in which they live.

 

Writing, Pacing, and Reflection

 

About me:¬†This year has been for me, in two distinct ways, a new beginning. How cliche, right? Well, maybe so, but it’s true. First of all, I am a cancer survivor. This school year (2015-2016) is my first healthy one since 2013. Second of all, after teaching high school for over 15 years, I am teaching 8th grade again. Honestly, even though I have experience with 8th graders, I feel like I never taught them because so much has changed since I first taught 8th grade in 1997.

My Goals: I set three goals for myself at the beginning of this school year:

  1. Write on! Students are using writer’s notebooks (see Ralph Fletcher) as a repository for ideas.
  2. Pacing: Depth of coverage matters more than amount of coverage. Slow down and be present!
  3. Reflection: I vowed that I would reflect more on my practice, BUT students would also be reflecting more on their learning, particularly in the area of writing.

Writing:¬†Overall, I feel as though I am meeting my goals. There is only one area, which I discuss below, where I am still falling short. My students are writing more, and it’s intentional and purposeful writing. One of my biggest challenges is finding the time to read their writer’s notebooks as often as I would like. I have managed to review them once a marking period so far, but with 120 students, it’s a daunting task combined with the other more formal writing assignments. If anyone has suggestions in this area, please share them! I constantly struggle with the proverbial “paper load.”

Slowing Down: In regards to goal #2, I feel as though I have mastered this art. I have learned how to focus my lessons to make learning more meaningful for students. As a high school teacher, I had the pressure of covering the content hanging over me on a daily basis. At the middle school level, I feel the pressure of the PSSA tests, but I have a bit more freedom when it comes to time. Yes, the students need to be prepared for the standardized test in April, but the ways in which I get them to that point are not as prescribed as they are at the high school level. I can be more creative, and I can also take the time to differentiate.

Teacher Reflection:¬†Goal number three is the one that I am constantly working to improve. I have always reflected on my lessons, either during lunch, in the car ride home, in bed at night when I can’t sleep . . . You get the idea. I have never been very good at actually composing written reflections. At this point, I am failing a bit in this area. First I vowed to write brief reflections in my plan book. Then I tried writing daily reflections in a Google document. After a few days, I forgot about it. It was months before I even remembered that I had created it! Today a colleague suggested that I start a blog, so here I am.

Student Reflection: I have asked my students to reflect more. On Monday, I asked them what they learned from writing their research-based argumentative essays. Some answers truly surprised me. Here are just a few:

  • “I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
  • “I learned that sometimes it’s better to stay off your phone and not use technology.”
  • “I can write six paragraphs, no problem!”
  • “I learned to manage my time and ask questions.”
  • “Argumentative essays are not so bad to write. They are fun because you get to write about both sides of the topic.”

The first response is the one that meant the most to me. If you knew this student, you would realize what a break-through this realization was for him. I am very proud of him and his effort. He has come a long way since he entered my class in September.

Asking students to reflect on their work has helped me get to know them better, and it has helped them get to know themselves better. As a result of reflection, I believe they are more aware of their learning styles and capabilities. As teachers, we can learn so much from our students by asking them to reflect more.